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As a kid, I wasn’t a huge fan of soccer. I enjoyed watching but not playing. After moving to Minnesota, I started to gain more passion for the game because it was one of the main opportunities for me to meet new people.

Soccer is incredible because it is really the most accessible game in the world: one field, two nets and as many people as you can get, and you have a game. Truly, it is a universal game.

Soccer, as “the world’s game” plays an important role in bringing people together when times are extremely divisive. Former Chelsea and Ivory Coast soccer star Didier Drogba exemplifies that idea best. Drogba used his fame as a tool for social change when he decided to save his country by appealing to politicians and his own people for peace.

After Drogba helped the Ivory Coast team qualify for the 2006 World Cup, he challenged President Laurent Gbagbo to end the civil war. He and his team pleaded to the Ivorian government by asking them to lay down their arms, a plea which was answered with a ceasefire after five years of civil war.

To Drogba, soccer is more than just entertainment, it is about honor and doing what is right. In a world where athletes are criticized for not “sticking to sports,” Drogba stands out as a reminder that any citizen should work to correct injustices they see in the world no matter their stature.

I had the opportunity a few years ago to play in an international soccer tournament in Italy with my team. There were 12 teams in the tournament from eight different countries and three different continents. At the opening ceremony, the team from South Africa shared with all of the participants that the World Cup 2010, which was to be held in Johannesburg, was a drive for social change. This gave Africa the opportunity to show the world a different face, it was an opportunity for South Africa to reflect on their transition from apartheid to a multiracial democracy.

The universality of soccer allowed the world to witness that juxtaposition amid a celebration of culture and singular competition, a feeling no other event can match.

We live in a world today that is complex. In an age where the trend in global politics seems to air towards the preservation of culture rather than a celebration of diversity, soccer shows us that we can come together. When our leaders don’t lead by example, instead focusing on isolation over trust, we look to the doors opened by cultural experience and the lessons other nations have to offer.

With the United States men’s team’s inability to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, perhaps a veiled metaphor for our nationalist trends that shy away from trusting other nations, a new opportunity arises. Amid the spirit and spectacle, we must observe what makes every culture great and learn from one another. Just as 11 players share the field on a team, many nations must learn to share the world.

No matter what, the World Cup will be played; it’s whether or not we learn from its lessons that is most important to me.

Featured photo by Noah Anderson

This article first appeared in the Friday, October 20, 2017, Edition of The Echo.